How to Identify, Price, and Value Old Coins

Coins and a key
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Old coins can be hard to identify and put values or prices on if you don't even know what the old coin is called. Is your old coin made of silver or gold? What country is the old coin from? Are the inscriptions in English or some other foreign language? Does the coin look brand-new, or is it so worn that it is barely identifiable? Is it a real coin or some sort of gaming or trade token?

Questions like these can confuse a person who is unfamiliar with the hobby of numismatics, also known as coin collecting. However, if you take a logical approach to your task at hand, it can be quite enjoyable, and maybe you just might find a rare and valuable coin in your possession.

Identify What Coins You Have

The first step in finding out what your old coins are worth is to identify them. If they are from the United States, you can check the U.S. Old Coins Identification chart. Old coins from the United States will always say "United States of America" on them, although sometimes this is abbreviated on very old U.S. coins. If the coin is from the U.S. and isn't on the chart, it is probably a commemorative coin, rather than a circulating coin. Remember, just because a coin has the words the United States on it, it doesn't mean it is an official United States coin.

For help with old commemorative coins, you are best off getting a copy of "The Guide Book to United States Coins." This is also known as the "Red Book." This is a complete listing of United States coins and their values.

Guides to US Coins

United States coins are grouped into the following major categories:

  • U.S. half cents (1793 to 1857)
  • U.S. small cents (1856 to date)
  • U.S. nickels/five cents (1866 to date)
  • U.S. dimes/ten cents (1796 to date)
  • U.S. quarters (1796 to date)
  • U.S. half dollars
  • U.S. one dollar coins
  • U.S. gold coins (1795 to 1933)
  • U.S. classic commemorative coins (1892 to 1954)
  • U.S. modern commemorative coins (1982 to present)

Old Coins From Outside the United States

If your old coins do not say they are from the United States, they will usually name some other country. In most cases, you should be able to make out what the country is, although it will usually be in the language of the country that issued the old coin. You can type the likely country name into a search engine such as Google to see what is available on the Web. There are thousands of coin-related Web sites out there for just about every type of old coin imaginable!

If the old coin doesn't have a country name that you can read, you can try visiting Don's World Coin Gallery to look it up. Don's Web site has over 25,000 photos of coins from more than 400 countries, past and present, and his Instant Identifiers page has images of dozens of coins that lack English inscriptions. Just match your old coin to the images, and click the image to get to his information and value page.

Additionally, your coin could actually be a token or medal. Many medals have been issued to commemorate various people and events throughout the world. These date all the way back to ancient times. You may want to take your unidentifiable coin or medal to a coin show or coin dealer where they can help you.

Old Coins That Can't Be Identified

Not all of your old coins will be identified using the methods above. In this case, you might have a token, round, or pattern, all of which resemble coins. Try typing the inscriptions you can read into a search engine. As a general rule, if the old coin doesn't have a country name and denomination (saying how much it's worth) on it, it's probably not an official government coin. It can be very hard to learn more about these unofficial coins because very few people collect them, so they're usually not worth very much (if any) money.

Private mints around the world have also minted tokens and fantasy coins. These are not official coins issued by a government, but they still may have value. During the Civil War, a coin shortage led to the production of many tokens by private mints. This allowed stores to make small change in business transactions. There are several books written about these tokens and they are highly collectible.

Researching Old Coins

Here are some tips for researching your old coins:

  • Don't be afraid to check eBay links if they come up in a search for your old coin. Sometimes sellers have a lot of detail about the coins in the auctions, plus you'll get an idea of value.
  • Be sure to check beyond the first page of search results. Sometimes you won't find what you need until several pages into the listings.
  • If you find something very similar, but that doesn't quite match your old coin, try emailing whoever's page (or eBay listing) you're on for help! Send a photo of your coin.
  • Try posting photos of your old coin in forums, or emailing it to coin dealers. Sooner or later someone will recognize it.

Although this is rarely our first choice when giving advice about old coins, you can try taking your old coins to a coin dealer and see what he can tell you. The reason we don't like to suggest this is that most coin dealers in the U.S. don't know any more about world coins and other non-coin numismatic items than you'd discover for yourself just searching Google and eBay. Plus, many coin dealers will try to buy your old coins from you at very low prices. Never sell your old coins until you know what you've got and what they're worth!